BOOKS AND ARTS NOVEMBER 30, 2010
How, I asked my husband as much in disbelief as in indignation, do the guards at the Louvre allow this? I wasn't referring to the hordes of chattering tourists of all description who, when they visit the museum, apparently think it is a good idea to press and elbow and jostle against one another in order to get into position to snap a picture—blinding flashes from every direction—of the long-suffering, overexposed Mona Lisa. Nor was I speaking about that other sizeable group of tourists who are in too great a hurry or are simply too restrained to do what is needed to gain a clear view and instead, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, raise their phones or cameras above their heads and aim blindly, again using flash, in the direction of the Mona Lisa as they make their way through the crowds and out the door of the newly modernized Salle des Etats without ever laying eyes on Leonardo's masterpiece or, for that matter, on any of the spectacular, breathtaking Titians and Veroneses and Tintorettos that surpass the Mona Lisa and dwell in the same lofty, unadorned hall.
I wasn't asking my husband about this familiar out-of-control scene at the Louvre because crowd control in the vicinity of the Mona Lisa has long been a losing proposition. I had read somewhere that 90 percent of the six million tourists who visit the Louvre make the Mona Lisa their first and sometimes only destination. Given the magnitude of the onslaught, the guards, whom one rarely sees until closing time when suddenly they appear, apparently energized by the prospect of escorting foreign stragglers out of their museum, have long given up on enforcing the restrictions against flash cameras and no longer make even the feeblest attempt to "shush" anyone. Who can blame them?
I was asking my husband about a kindred and one would suppose more manageable guardly duty. We had just entered the gallery that is home to some of Ingres's most fully realized visions of ideal beauty and as we approached with anticipation one of his most magnificent canvasses, The Bather, we found our path blocked by a young Japanese woman who thought nothing of positioning herself just to the side of the painting and then aping the elegant, sinuous pose of the nude figure while turning her head and covering her eyes in a pantomime of faux though obscene modesty as her friends, giggling and gesticulating, immortalized the moment using flash. It was then—and again later that evening when we witnessed further enactments of this same kind of warped prurient modesty/prudery in front of imposing ancient sculptures of male nude gods and mythic heroes—that I asked my husband, as much in disbelief as in indignation, how do the guards allow this?
As we waited, dumbfounded, for the little troop of perverted innocents to move on, I recalled Henry James's disgust with the tourists of his day. When he wrote about his travels in Venice in 1881, he could already complain that "the barbarians are in full possession and you tremble for what they may do. You are reminded from the moment of your arrival that Venice scarcely exists any more as a city at all; that she exists only as a battered peep-show and bazaar." And then my husband whispered to me that all this intrusive posing and picture-taking was a kind of graffitti in reverse: instead of the old barbarians carving "Kilroy was here" on a marble sculpture or Corinthian column, the new narcissistic ones "send" all their "friends" in their "Facebook" photos of themselves obliviously ruining a long-admired masterpiece by their very presence. We agreed that when compared to the vandalism of old, today's virtual mode was less bad in that it left no indelible, disfiguring marks on the work of art itself, even as we could not help worrying about the damage it would surely do to our memories, not to mention our future imaginings, of Ingres's exquisite Bather and the grand marble Hercules.
The next day, at the Cathedral in Rouen, we found ourselves in an aesthetic atmosphere that could not have been more different from the mindless, frentic one of the Louvre. I had long wanted to visit this place because a writer extremely important to me, Ruskin, offered a tiny carved Gothic figure decorating one of its doorways as the famous climax of his argument about why the world looks the way it does in his Seven Lamps of Architecture and because another writer beloved to me, Proust, who in his youth adored Ruskin, made a pilgrimage to Rouen Cathedral after Ruskin died to pay homage to the carved "little man" and then wrote some intensely moving words about it in the preface to his translation of Ruskin's Bible of Amiens. But now that we were actually standing in front of the soaring Gothic cathedral—every inch of its massive stone surface incised with lace-like flamboyant tracery; stack upon stack of sculpted angels, saints, apostles, prophets, kings barely contained within their towering stone balconies and porches; ornamented pinnacles, gables, canopies in dazzling profusion—I experienced firsthand the psychic chaos represented in the homely expression of looking for a needle in a haystack. How, I asked my husband, would we ever find Ruskin's "little man"?
I knew from reading Proust that the object of our pilgrimage was located in a place called "the Bookseller's Porch." We bought a guide and after navigating past a great deal of scaffolding (restorers busy at work), we found it, an elaborately decorated doorway into the north transept of the cathedral. As we approached the doorway, I thought I knew what we were looking for; I had read Ruskin's description many times, having taught The Seven Lamps of Architecture repeatedly over the years:
There is an evidence in the features of thoughtfulness and fancy which is not common, at least now-a-days [the year was 1849]. ... The fellow is vexed and puzzled in his malice; and his hand is pressed hard on his cheek bone, and the flesh is wrinkled under the eye by the pressure.
I had made a xerox of this passage and of Ruskin's etching of the figure before we left on our trip. But, again the reality of the Gothic structure outstripped anything I had been led to expect. On either side of two giant rust-colored doors, we were faced with hundreds of small, weather-beaten, crumbling quatrefoiled panels containing roughly carved bas reliefs, some at eye level but a great many more at a height reaching at least double my husband's. I felt overwhelmed and remembered that Proust, too, had initially lost heart when he first entered the Bookseller's Porch. Luckily we had binoculars; equally lucky, the light was streaming in from the north, cool and even, the kind of perfect viewing light that artists have always sought in north-facing studios. And being the only people there, we had the luxury of taking our time undisturbed.
As we contemplated the individual panels, an exuberant bestiary of mythical animals and hybrid monsters began to emerge. We saw a dragon with a hooded human head, a sow suffering from a toothache, a goat ringing a bell ... But Ruskin's vexed and puzzled fellow was nowhere to be found. Time and weather had defaced many of the stone panels as efficiently as any iconoclast might have done. I asked my husband if he thought Ruskin' "couchant figure" with its "gloomy and brooding" eye (his further description) had disappeared in this way. He asked me for the xerox of Ruskin's drawing and took up the search again. After much sustained looking and comparing, he realized that we had been on the wrong track. The panel Ruskin had drawn, he informed me, was a composite of three separate, unrelated figures. We would never find "the little man" in the center of one of the quatrefoiled panels; instead he was located in the very cramped space in the corner of the panel, the space at the edge of the four-lobed geometric foliation that enclosed the mythical animals. Once we knew what we were looking for, our attention became riveted on each of the four tiny corners of each panel, areas that just a few moments before literally had no existence for us. Now we could see nothing else. We were completely absorbed by the multitude of strange, contorted hybrid angel/man/animal/serpent creatures, just slightly longer than my husband's index finger, whose poses were made to conform to both the circular angle of the quatrefoil and the 90-degree angle of the edge of the panel.
Then, miraculously, out of the hundreds of nearly indistinguishable stone figurines, my husband found the one we were looking for. We were now standing in the very same place where Ruskin, over a century and a half earlier and Proust 50 years after him, had stood, looking with wonder and delight at the same rather coarsely carved, though touching figure. For the first time that day my experience was in accord with what I had anticipated from reading Ruskin. I felt the force of his argument about why the world looks the way it does. The "vexed and puzzled" little fellow, in all its raw expressiveness and vitality, was the physical embodiment of the stone-carver's joy in his labor; for why else, as Ruskin pointed out, would the carver have taken the time and care to indicate, rough line by rough line, the wrinkles under the figure's eye as his cheek rested on his hand? After all, we are talking about a face of a figure smaller than my thumb that is a mere filling of an interstice on the outside of a cathedral gate, a figure that passionate pilgrims like my husband and myself failed to notice even when we were looking directly at the carved panel on which it reclines.
Having now seen the tiny Gothic figure that had occupied such a large place in my imagination, I could only wonder at the depth and range of Ruskin's sensibility contained in that observation. And, I began to realize, I was equally if not more astounded by Ruskin's acute vision. With thousands of sculpted figures of all sizes and description to fill one's eye and mind, how hard he must have looked to see that particular tiny, obscure figure, for, unlike us (or Proust), Ruskin had no guide. Instead, my husband ventured, his mind must have been prepared, his eye alert, his attention intensely concentrated in ways that few of us are capable of today. As I felt the page in my hand of Ruskin's etching, we began to speak of the way cultivated travelers used to memorize and preserve the details of beloved paintings, sculptures, buildings, and landscapes they visited by drawing them or painting watercolors—and in Ruskin's case, by making his own etchings of his drawings for his books. We thought of the time and mindfulness and care that the handmade world required, how radically opposed it was to today's automaton picture-taking and instant, disposable "messaging."
As we left the Bookseller's Porch, I recalled the joy Proust felt in finding "the little man" that Ruskin had rescued from oblivion. I had read his words on the train to Rouen:
He made a drawing of it; he spoke of it. And the harmless and monstrous little figurine will have come back to life, against all hope, from that death which seems more total than others, which is the disappearance into the midst of infinite numbers and leveling down of similarities, but from which genius quickly rescues us.
Throughout his life, Ruskin was anguished by the terrible harm wrought on the things of the world he loved by the division and degradation of labor, by thoughtless industrial pollution, by misguided restoration. "Venice is disappearing at the rate of a sugar cube in a cup of tea," he lamented in a letter to his parents as he was writing Seven Lamps of Architecture in 1848, a book devoted to saving both in words and in etchings magnificent Gothic edifices that were undergoing "restoration." "The most useless book I ever wrote," he would announce in the second edition published in 1880. "None of the buildings still remain." After having read Proust's beautiful description of his pilgrimage to Rouen, I couldn't help thinking that Ruskin might have been heartened by the picture of Proust searching for that particular figurine among the crumbling stone multitudes and finding it and having a most Ruskinian moment of recognition and, in it, saving the world, at least during that fleeting interval, from the destruction of forgetting or indifference, and then for much longer by recording his own thoughts, which are kept alive every time they enter a reader's consciousness: "I was moved to find the figurine still there because I realized then that nothing dies that once has lived, neither the sculptor's thought, nor Ruskin's."
Rochelle Gurstein, a monthly columnist for The New Republic, is the author of The Repeal of Reticence: America's Cultural and Legal Struggles over Free Speech, Obscenity, Sexual Liberation, and Modern Art. She is currently writing a book on the history of aesthetic experience tentatively entitled Of Time and Beauty.